Black Americans Got the Right to Vote 150 Years Ago, but Voter Suppression is Still a Problem

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down an Arizona law last week that would have criminalized the delivery of other people’s early ballots. In its decision, the 11-judge panel mentioned the 15th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution 19 times, reaching back 150 years to halt what’s perceived as modern-day voter suppression.

The lasting power of the 15th Amendment, which awarded African Americans the right to vote, resonates today in courtrooms across America. But Civil War scholars and voting rights advocates warn that the amendment should serve as a cautionary tale: Challenges to voting rights today, from photo ID requirements to registration restrictions in some states, echo those that have plagued the 15th Amendment for more than a century.

On Monday, America celebrates the 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment. This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, that won women the right to vote, and the 55th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which cemented voting rights for Black citizens – all in a presidential election year.

“It’s a remarkable accomplishment given that slavery was such a dominant institution before the Civil War,” Columbia University history professor and author Eric Foner said of the 15th Amendment. “But the history of the 15th Amendment also shows rights can never be taken for granted: Things can be achieved and things can be taken away.”

The 15th Amendment was the last of three Constitutional amendments passed in the wake of the Civil War. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery and the 14th Amendment granted African Americans citizenship and equal treatment under the law.

Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party knew they needed to enshrine voting rights in law and, after much debate in Congress, drafted the 15th Amendment, declaring that the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Its passage touched off widespread celebrations. According to Foner’s book, “The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution,” African Americans called the amendment the nation’s “second birth” and a “greater revolution than that of 1776.” Seven thousand Blacks squeezed down Broadway in New York City for a celebratory march and in Baltimore, some 10,000 people took part in a massive parade of Black army regiments, militia companies, trade unions and other groups, according to the book.

African Americans – many of them newly freed slaves – put their newfound freedom to use, voting in scores of Black candidates. During Reconstruction, 16 Black men served in Congress and 2,000 Black men served in elected local, state and federal positions, Foner said.

“There was tremendous optimism and hope and there was voting,” said historian Yohuru Williams of St. Thomas University in Minneapolis. “Clearly, the amendment has impact. But it’s short-lived.”

The amendment’s main flaw was that it didn’t guarantee citizens the right to vote – it only said that states couldn’t bar voting on the basis of race or color, Williams said. Starting around 1900, states found workarounds to the law, enacting poll tax laws and literacy tests as means of restricting the Black vote. Also, intimidation and violence from groups like the Ku Klux Klan greatly diminished Black voting. From 1901 to 1928, no Black members served in Congress.

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Source: USA Today

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